In some ways, the Kwinitsa railway station and foreman’s house are nothing special: they are both designed simply and are typical of western Canadian railway structures. But now, more than 50 years after their prime, they are considered rare and precious historical artifacts—if only because they are two of the only historic railway buildings left standing in the region.
Kwinitsa was once one of hundreds of railway stops on the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway. The GTP, built in the early 1900s, spanned close to 5,000 kilometres, following the rivers between Winnipeg and Prince Rupert. At Mile 48.2, the Kwinitsa stop was one of 10 in the Skeena Subdivision—the section of railroad between Terrace and Prince Rupert.
According to Charles Bohi’s historical book on western Canadian train stations, the Kwinitsa station was, like almost 200 others across the province, a “Type E” structure.
All GTP stations conformed to one of six basic designs: A to F. Type E was the most common; almost two thirds of the railroad’s stations were of this narrow, rectangular design with a bell-cast roof.
The Kwinitsa foreman’s house was similar in that it had no frills. The 1,500-square-foot building had three bedrooms, a kitchen, and rectangular windows on all sides.
CN began to shut down various railway stations around the province, including Kwinitsa, in the 1970s and ’80s. They destroyed many of the old structures, and sold others at a discount.
According to Chantal Meijer of Terrace’s Regional Historical Society, old station buildings went for $50 a pop. “You could buy the section for $50, but CN wanted everything nice and clean. You had to leave the land clear,” says Chantal, whose father, Richard Rinaldi of Terrace, also happens to have been the last foreman at Kwinitsa.
Life with the railroad
Rinaldi started working for CN in 1953, at 73 cents an hour, after immigrating to Canada from France the year before. He was one of many men in the Skeena region whose lives were based around the railway, but you can tell he has a love-hate relationship with it.
The 71-year-old’s eyes glisten when he speaks of supervising a steel gang crew, and his chest swells when he recounts that his CN career spanned 35 years. But the employer that allowed him to provide a good life for his wife and family—the center of his world, according to his daughter—also kept him away from them.
During his entire stint at Kwinitsa, from 1963 to 1970, Rinaldi lived alone. He visited his family—who lived in Terrace—or they visited him on weekends, but that was it.
“For the first five years, I worked seven days a week,” Rinaldi says of his start at CN. “I didn’t come home until we changed to 14 days on, four days off.”
Job conditions were rough, too. “The Kwinitsa foreman’s house had no running water and no electricity,” he says.
In 1970, Rinaldi was transferred to Terrace when the rail yard opened. He and six others worked out of a small bunkhouse, which also had no running water or electricity. “It was terrible,” he says. “There was no toilet except for an outside toilet.”
Rinaldi remembers eating salty sandwiches for lunch in the winters because of salt on his hands from spreading it around the yard to keep from slipping.
Saving the station
It was at this time that CN started shutting down its stations, so Rinaldi’s brain cogs started clanking. Assuming the old Kwinitsa structures would be vandalized if they weren’t sold or destroyed first, he demanded the company bring the Kwinitsa foreman’s house to Terrace. He also demanded the company upgrade it so the yard workers could have a workstation.
And CN did. A crew fetched the house, splitting it into two halves and transporting each to Terrace on a rail car within a month of his request.
“It was paradise compared to before,” says Rinaldi of the new working conditions. “You’re living like a hundred years back, and then all of a sudden we had power.”
After moving the building a couple hundred metres west, where it now sits next to the tracks at the bottom of Eby Street on Highway 16, CN finally closed its Kwinitsa office. The building sat empty and in ruins at the end of the Millennium Trail walkway for at least 10 years.
In 2005, the city bought the building and its property at the urging of Meijer and Rinaldi, who didn’t want to see it destroyed, and earlier this year the house was being rehabilitated again.
The city spent almost four months and $150,000 renovating the building. Though their intention was to keep as much of the old structure’s features, design and materials as possible, the building saw a few new touches such as paved parking, a large sundeck and public washrooms.
Now a community group runs an ice cream parlour out of half of it in the summer. The other half is yet to be filled; a railway museum is one possibility.
Like the foreman’s residence, the old Kwinitsa station building was also rescued from oblivion. In 1985, the City of Prince Rupert, again at the request of some of its citizens, barged the station down the Skeena (it was too large to transport by rail or highway). It was set up on the waterfront just behind the downtown mall and renovated, keeping most of its original features. Now, the old structure is known as the Kwinitsa Railway Station Museum, a tourist attraction open during summers and displaying relic items from Prince Rupert and the railway’s past.
Railways and the landscape
Living in the Northwest, one can’t help but be fascinated by the railway. Tracks cut through almost every community in the region and affect our lives daily whether we notice or not. In Terrace, the railroad divides the town into the Horseshoe and the Southside. In Smithers, the tracks lie at the mountain’s edge, separating the town from nature. Similarly, in Prince Rupert they divide the city from the ocean; the fishers from the fish.
Many scenic drives in the Northwest encompass mountains, water and, though you may not realize it, railway tracks. Two lines of endless steel, lying on a bed of gravel and wooden ties, continuing on for seemingly forever north and south, east and west, flashing by your window like the trains themselves. One might say the railroad is the most loyal traveling companion around—it never leaves your side.
The railway also is, and always will be, key to the region’s economy. Millions of dollars of goods are shipped throughout the Northwest, from here to the province’s south and the rest of the world and back by rail.
In the past, the railroad brought life and jobs to the region. Though the GTP Railway went bankrupt shortly after the first train arrived in Prince Rupert in April, 1914 (CN was formed by the federal government to take the GTP and another rail line over), the system was so enthusiastically adopted by its users and surrounding communities that the trains never stopped running.